Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evilby Ron Rosenbaum
When Hitler's war ended in 1945, the war over Hitlerwho he really was, what gave birth to his unique evilhad just begun. Hitler did not escape the bunker in Berlin but, half a century later, he has managed to escape explanation in ways both frightening and profound. Explaining Hitler is an extraordinary quest, an expedition into the war zone/b>… See more details below
When Hitler's war ended in 1945, the war over Hitlerwho he really was, what gave birth to his unique evilhad just begun. Hitler did not escape the bunker in Berlin but, half a century later, he has managed to escape explanation in ways both frightening and profound. Explaining Hitler is an extraordinary quest, an expedition into the war zone of Hitler theories. This is a passionate, enthralling book that illuminates what Hitler explainers tell us about Hitler, about the explainers, and about ourselves.
Washington Post Book World
Rosenbaum has read extensively and thoughtfully; he also casts a wide intellectual net, writing chapters on the interpretive musings of H.R. Trevor-Roper, Alan Bullock, Yehuda Bauer, the philosopher Berel Lang, literary critic George Steiner, filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, and even the Hitler apologist and revisionist David Irving. (Conspicuously and curiously absent is Primo Levi, whose work The Drowned and the Saved is a classic in the field.) Potentially explosive subjectsfor example, Hitler's reportedly 'abnormal' sexualityare handled with discerning intelligence. Rosenbaum employs a brilliant methodological stratagem by taking Albert Schweitzer's 1906 study, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, as a model. Schweitzer realized that the 19th-century school of German Protestant 'higher criticism,' which prided itself on its 'scientific' positivism in explaining Jesus, actually revealed more about scholars themselves than the historical figure they were studying. Similarly, Rosenbaum shows how the various attempts to 'explain' Hitler are prisms that reflect our ownfears and desires. This leads, of course, to the not insignificant matter of Rosenbaum's own fears and desires, ironically not fully addressed by the author. Yet his great contribution is that, unlike most Holocaust scholars, he refuses to offer a definitive explanation. Instead, he lays out with memorable clarity a series of tantalizing interpretations, preferring a 'poetry of doubt' that allows us to grapple for ourselves with the question of evil. Profound and provocative.
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The Mysterious Stranger, the Serving Girl, and the Family Romance of the Hitler Explainers
In which the author makes an expedition to the Hitler family "ancestral home" and meditates upon the romantic life of Maria Schicklgruber, as imagined by historical fantasists Iwas ready to give up and turn back. A surprise mid-autumn snowstorm had blown out of Russia and was blanketing Central Europe, making the relatively primitive back roads of this backwoods quarter of Austria increasingly impassable.
We were only about twenty miles short of our objective, but our rented Volkswagen was beginning to skid, once bringing us perilously close to the brink of one of the woody ravines that crisscrossed the otherwise featureless reaches of snow-covered farmland stretching north to the Czech border.
I'd timidly suggested to my Austrian researcher, Waltraud, who was at the wheel, that we ought to consider abandoning our quest for the day because of the risk. But she wanted to press on, declaring that, as a native of the mountainous Tyrol, she had experience navigating the far more treacherous mountain roads of the Alps.
Not entirely reassured, I nonetheless felt there was something appropriate about the blizzardy circumstances of this venture: The storm we were heading into was an autumnal version of the blitz of snow that had halted Hitler's panzer divisions just short of Moscow in the winter of 1941-the beginning of the end for him. The place we were fighting through the snow to find-a ghost town called Döllersheim-was the beginning of the beginning: the primal scene of the mysteries behind the Hitler family romance.
The disappearance, the apparently deliberate erasure, of Döllersheim is one of the most peculiar aspects of the deeply tangled Hitler-genealogy controversy. The tiny village was literally blasted off the map and out of existence sometime after Hitler annexed Austria. An effort-some partisans in the controversy contend-to erase all traces of certain irregular and disreputable Hitler family events that took place there. Irregularities that have long cast a shadow over accounts of Hitler's origins. Irregularities that had given rise to repeated pilgrimages to Döllersheim in the prewar years by journalists and other interested investigators, news of which invariably provoked Hitler into near-apoplectic rages.
"People must not know who I am," he was reported to have ranted when he learned of one of the early investigations into his family history. "They must not know where I come from."
And there are those who insist that after 1938 he made Döllersheim pay the price for being the site of such inquiries, made it disappear. Whatever the cause of the erasure, there can be little doubt of its effectiveness. That morning in Vienna, as the snow began gusting in from the east, I searched in vain for a map that still had the hamlet of Döllersheim on it, until I happened on a little shop belonging to a rare-book dealer who was able to dig up a musty 1896 German atlas of the world which still had the hamlet of Döllersheim on its map of Austria. While the map showed no roads, it did provide a means of triangulation: The dot on the map for Döllersheim was just north of a bend in the river Kamp and just east of another little dot on the map called Ottenstein.
Ottenstein: That name conjured up a peculiarly memorable phrase, "scion of the seigneurial house of Ottenstein." This Heathcliffian heroic epithet appears in a catalog of candidates-list of suspects, one might say-for the shadowy figure at the heart of the Hitler family romance: the man who fathered Hitler's father. The identity of the man who impregnated a forty-two-year-old unmarried serving woman named Maria Schicklgruber sometime in late 1836 was not disclosed on the baby's baptismal certificate filed in her parish church in Döllersheim when the child (christened Alois Schicklgruber) was born on June 7, 1837. That blank line on the baptismal certificate, in the space where the name of the father of the child should be, has become a kind of blank screen onto which journalists, intelligence agencies, historians, psychoanalysts, and other fantasists have projected a wild array of alternative candidates to the man named in the official Nazi genealogies as Hitler's paternal grandfather, Johann Georg Hiedler.
Hundreds and hundreds of pages in scores of books have been devoted to trying to divine the sexual choice behind that blank line, to read the mind of the woman who made the choice: Maria Schicklgruber. She was, in fact, the first of three generations of Hitler-related women whose unfathomable erotic liaisons cast a powerful spell over Hitler's life-and over his subsequent biographers. After Maria, there was Hitler's mother, Klara, and then his half-niece Geli Raubal. Three women-all, interestingly, serving girls-whose greatest service has been to the Hitler explainers.
The flavor of the speculation over Maria Schicklgruber's sexual choices is captured by the partial catalog of candidates for the role of Hitler's paternal grandfather offered by the impressionable German biographer of Hitler, Werner Maser.
"Various candidates have been suggested," Maser writes. In addition to the official nominee on the Nazi Party family tree for Hitler, Johann Georg Hiedler, and Maser's own candidate, Johann Georg's wealthier brother Johann Nepomuk Hiedler, there are "a 'Graz Jew' by the name of Frankenberger, a scion of the seigneurial house of Ottenstein, and even a Baron Rothschild of Vienna." Maser doesn't believe Adolf Hitler was a Frankenberger, an Ottenstein, or a Rothschild descendant (the latter astonishing suggestion seems to be traceable to the pre-Anschluss anti-Hitler Austrian secret police). But he has concocted an elaborate theory of rural sexual intrigue and greed over a legacy to bolster the candidacy of his man, Johann Nepomuk Hiedler.
One can argue with Maser's Brueghelian explanation of the Döllersheim ambiguities, but it's hard to deny his summary of the confused state of Hitler studies on the paternal-grandfather question: "If there is one fact on which at least some biographers are agreed, it is that Adolf's paternal grandfather was not the man officially regarded as such, namely the journeyman miller Johann Georg Hiedler." (A "fact" only "some" biographers agree upon is hardly a fact to rely upon.) The more judicious Alan Bullock says, "In all probability, we shall never know for certain who Adolf Hitler's grandfather, the father of Alois, really was. It has been suggested that he may have been a Jew, without definite proof one way or the other."
The closer we got to our destination, to Döllersheim, the more empty and remote from civilization the countryside began to look, the further back in time we seemed to be going. This part of Austria, the Waldviertel (the sector northwest of Vienna, between the Danube and the Czech border), and its scattered peasant-farmer inhabitants have remained relatively isolated from cosmopolitan civilization for centuries. With the heavy blanketing of snow shrouding the occasional ancient barn and farmhouse and obliterating almost all remaining visible traces of modernity, the lonely look and feel of the countryside could not have differed much from the way it looked some 156 years earlier. When someone-either a local-yokel miller or a mysterious stranger with "alien blood"-bedded down a middle-aged peasant woman named Maria Schicklgruber, leaving her pregnant with Hitler's father and leaving subsequent historians a legacy of doubt. Doubt that may have haunted Hitler as well as those who tried to explain him.
As we pulled into the courtyard of a three-century-old inn to ask for directions to Döllersheim, the remote snowbound setting and the nature of our search for Maria Schicklgruber's shadowy secret lover recalled to me the opening of Mark Twain's peculiar, posthumously published fable of evil, The Mysterious Stranger: "It was in 1590-winter. Austria was far away from the world, and asleep. . . . And our village was in the middle of that sleep. . . . It drowsed in peace in the deep privacy of a hilly and woodsy solitude . . . news from the world hardly ever came to disturb its dreams."
Of course, someone does then come to disturb the dreams of this insulated Austrian fastness in Twain's tale, "a mysterious stranger" who turns out to be Satan, although Twain's Satan is both more angelic and more diabolical than the conventional Prince of Darkness.
I was surprised when, after I returned home from Döllersheim and reread The Mysterious Stranger, to find in it the following passage from Twain's 1916 fable: "We had two priests [in the sleepy village]. One of them, Father Adolf, was a very zealous and strenuous priest. . . . [No one] was held in more solemn and awful respect. This was because he had absolutely no fear of the Devil. Father Adolf had actually met Satan face to face more than once."
It's remarkable how accurately Twain evoked the drowsing remoteness of this countryside, the sense of the sinister potential in somber, muffled silence. The little inn we'd stopped at was built sometime around 1600, one of the men huddled in front of the fireplace in the dining room told us. And aside from a poster on the wall announcing a "Disco Abend" next Saturday night at the local parish hall, it didn't look like much had changed in the centuries since. We ordered some wursts and asked the locals if they could help us find Döllersheim. It was they who gave us our first intimation of the nature of the verfallen world we were heading into.
The verfallen world, the ruined wasteland that was once Hitler's "ancestral homeland": It is the ur-source of Hitler's strangeness, the original locus of his alienness, his foreignness, an uncertainty of origins that was more than geographical. Throughout his life, wherever he went, Adolf Hitler was always a Mysterious Stranger. From the moment he first came to public notice, this uncertainty served to generate scurrilous rumors, whispers, and slanders. To some, the aura of strangeness, alienness was a source of his mystique-something that helped give him a mythic dimension, something that elevated him above the ruck of ordinary politicians, a quality of apartness he manipulated to his own advantage. To others who have tried to explain Hitler, the strangeness grew out of a haunting uncertainty about himself-an uncertainty in his own mind-that manipulated him, twisted him, was in fact the wellspring of the deformity of his psyche.
Ambiguity was built into the very geography of Hitler's origins; he was the product of not one but two borderlands: First, there was his actual birthplace in western Austria at Braunau on the river Inn, the river that separates Germany from Austria. (His father, Alois, was, in fact, a customs inspector who commuted back and forth across the riverine border every day.) But more significantly for the psyche of a fanatic believer in the determinism of racial ancestry, Hitler's family came from (and in his childhood he returned to) an "ancestral homeland" (as the local Nazis later proudly called it) two hundred miles east of Braunau, here in the Waldviertel, in a landscape that was for centuries disputed borderland between Austria and Czechoslovakia. It was a no-man's-land between one realm that was Germanic and another that was Slavic-the same Slavic people Hitler professed to loathe as subhuman and would later enslave and slaughter. Indeed, the very name "Hitler" and its older variants "Hiedler" and "Hüttler" are more Slavic than Germanic, a fact that certainly rankled Hitler, casting as it did a shadow on his claim to Aryan purity-although not so dark a one as the rumor that the mysterious stranger who wandered through this borderland was a wandering Jew.
Sir Isaiah Berlin once elaborated a kind of borderland theory of charismatic political genius. Citing Napoleon, Joseph Stalin, and Theodor Herzl as well as Hitler, he speculates that the peculiar psychology of many of the most charismatic, fanatic, possessed nationalist political leaders can be traced to their borderland origins: to the fact that they came "from outside the society that they led, or at any rate from its edges, the outer marches." The borderland syndrome, Berlin argues, has given rise to a disproportionate number of "men of fiery vision, whether noble or degraded, idealistic or perverted," men who developed "either exaggerated sentiment or contempt for the dominant majority, or else over-intense admiration or even worship of it . . . which leads both to unusual insights, and-born of overwrought sensibilities-a neurotic distortion of the facts."
It's a description that fits Hitler but only in part. There always was-there still is-a sense of strangeness about him that surpassed such a borderland syndrome, a persistent sense even among his allies that there was a deeper sort of aberration, a less explicable alienness than that of Napoleon, even Stalin. He certainly didn't fit, didn't seem to come from the one place to which he should have been native, this countryside, this "ancestral homeland of the Fuhrer" we've been traveling through.
A number of Hitler biographers have made a point of noting that for centuries the peasant farmers inhabiting this isolated quarter of Lower Austria have stuck to their less-than-lush land, intermarrying frequently and producing generation after generation of more farmers-conspicuously failing to give birth to anyone who attracted the notice, much less disturbed the dreams of history. And then suddenly: Adolf Hitler.
One postwar German historian, Helmut Heiber of the highly regarded Munich Institute for Contemporary History, examining this phenomenon in his Hitler biography, voiced the unspoken implication: "The aberrational quality of the Hitler family beginning with the ambitious and enterprising father of Adolf shows that other blood must have entered the Lower Austrian Waldviertel stock which had been weakened by years of inbreeding" (emphasis added).
Other blood: the Hitlerian ring to this phrase is, one hopes, ironic. But the specter of "other blood" is at the heart of the highly charged Hitler family romance. "Family romance," of course, was the term first coined by Freud in 1909 as a way of characterizing a not-uncommon romantic fantasy: that one's parents are not one's real progenitors, that one's real parents are "others who as a rule are of higher social standing" such as "the Lord of the Manor or some member of the aristocracy." The family romance frequently involves a fairy-tale-like myth of origins in which one has been dispossessed of one's royal, exotic, or privileged origin by misfortune or sinister conspiracy-a theme common to myth, folklore, Shakespeare's late romances, eighteenth-century picaresque novels, and the paranoid fantasies of contemporary schizophrenics who proclaim they're heir to the Rockefeller fortune or they're Howard Hughes's love child.
While its form might evoke fairy tales, the core of the family romance is sexual mystery-the eternal disturbing truth that is at the heart of so much family and literary drama: "Pater semper incertus est," the identity of the father is always uncertain, as the Latin saying quoted by Freud goes. The nature of our reproductive biology has, built into it, an eternal mischief-making source of uncertainty. Men must trust the word of women about the paternity of their child, Freud lamented. In some special circumstances, even the woman cannot know.
Freud argues that the family-romance fantasy arises as soon as the child learns the truth "about sexual process." He "tends to picture to himself [in] erotic situations and relations . . . situations of secret infidelity and . . . secret love affairs" that, typically, bring his mother together with a more romantic, more exotic, higher-born mysterious stranger of a father.
Setting aside for a moment the question of whether Hitler himself entertained family-romance fantasies, there is little doubt that his explainers have. The proliferation of candidates for the mysterious stranger who fathered Hitler's father-in particular such high-born candidates as "a Baron Rothschild" and the "scion of the seigneurial house of Ottenstein"-and the persistent speculation about secret infidelities, illicit love affairs, and ambiguous "erotic situations" involving Maria Schicklgruber represents the family romance of the Hitler explainers.
Like glancing at the head of Medusa, staring too closely at the entangled strangeness of Hitler's origins has its dangers to the would-be explainers, one of them being the need to imagine that their extraordinary subject has a more exotic, more romantic origin than this grim peasant landscape could produce. It's a need that engenders the hope of finding an explicatory elixir such as "other blood" to account for the spectacular anomaly Hitler was, not only in the Waldviertel but in world history.
One reason the temptation to construe fragmentary genealogical evidence into a family romance has been hard to resist is the presence of such classic folkloric, fairy-tale-like elements in the mysterious-stranger-like setting. There's a wandering miller (Georg), an ambitious bastard (Alois), a rumored legacy, a (not quite) Cinderella-like peasant serving girl (Maria), a disappearing village (Döllersheim), rumored assignations with the prince of a nearby castle (Ottenstein), and whispers about intrigue with a powerful prince of "other blood" (Baron Rothschild).
At the epicenter of all these alleged intrigues and family-romance liaisons is that all-but-erased dot on the map that marks the disappearing village of Döllersheim. And at the center of the Döllersheim intrigues is a kind of sacred erasure, the now-obliterated parish church that was the scene of three peculiar, ambiguous ceremonies in the Hitler origins controversies. That church was, first of all, in 1837, the place where Maria Schicklgruber filed the baptismal certificate for the child who would become Hitler's father, the document with the mischief-making blank line. That same church was also, five years later, the site of a curious wedding ceremony between Maria, then forty-seven years old, and forty-three-year-old Johann Georg Hiedler, the wandering miller, who would later, without much solid evidence, assume prominence in Hitler's official genealogies as his paternal grandfather.
What made the wedding curious was what it didn't entail. It didn't entail the wandering miller adopting Maria's five-year-old son, Alois, the future father of Adolf-an adoption that might have been expected if, in fact, Johann Georg was the biological father of the boy. It didn't involve the son going to live under the same roof as his mother and putative father, Johann Georg. Instead, Hitler's father, Alois, went to live with Johann Georg's brother, Johann Nepomuk Hiedler (one reason Maser believes Nepomuk is his real father), a somewhat more settled and prosperous (but already married) peasant.
It seemed to be a marriage of convenience, but whose convenience? What made the ceremony even more curious in retrospect was yet a third ceremony enacted in the Döllersheim parish church thirty-five years after the marriage, a transaction of dubious legitimacy based on questionable affidavits: the name-change ceremony. This was the one by means of which Maria Schicklgruber's child-Alois Schicklgruber up till then-in his fortieth year suddenly reappeared in his home parish to claim, retroactively, that the long-dead wandering miller Georg, who'd never formally acknowledged paternity during his life, had been his biological father. And that the poor dead dad had dearly wanted him to bear the Hiedler name (although after the change Alois styled it "Hitler").
The questionable circumstances of these three Döllersheim ceremonies and the strange fate of Döllersheim itself would be of no concern to anyone if the newly minted Alois Hitler had not gone on to father a child named Adolf-and perhaps if Adolf had not shown such an exaggerated sensitivity to these Döllersheim aspects of his background.
But not long after he became a player on the world stage with the failed coup attempt of November 1923, another set of mysterious strangers began to show up in Dollersheim, poking into the records in the parish church registry, trying to find out what secret lay behind them. First, there were opposition journalists, then intelligence operatives, then private investigators, and ultimately the Gestapo itself making pilgrimages to the parish church. (At Himmler's request, Gestapo officers made no less than four expeditions to Austria to see if they could get to the bottom of the irregularities in accounts of Hitler's origins.)
The name change was the first issue to surface publicly and the first to provide an indication of Hitler's reaction to the questions shadowing his family history. According to Rudolf Olden's prewar Hitler biography, sometime in the mid-twenties, "an ingenious journalist published the fact in a liberal newspaper in Vienna, that Hitler's father had changed his name from Schicklgruber to Hiedler." Olden added a malicious (and, technically, inaccurate) twist of the knife, to the effect that "it was not correct to say 'Heil Hitler!' it should be 'Heil Schicklgruber!' "
This line in Olden's book has been taken up by several Hitler biographers, who have tended to build up the significance of the name change to world-historical proportions. Olden himself tells us, "I have heard Germans speculate whether Hitler could have become the master of Germany had he been known to the world as Schicklgruber. It has a slightly comic sound as it rolls off the tongue of a south German. Can one imagine the frenzied German masses acclaiming a Schicklgruber with their Heils?" John Toland, in similar language, tells us, "It is difficult to imagine seventy million Germans shouting in all seriousness, 'Heil Schicklgruber!' "
While too much can be made of the name-change explanation of his destiny, clearly Hitler was extraordinarily sensitive to any probing into a family history that was most likely terra incognita to himself. Olden adds that the fury of Hitler over the Schicklgruber disclosure took the form of a brutal assault: "Two young party members attacked the editor of the Vienna paper which printed the 'Heil Schicklgruber' story with truncheons in the café where he used to sit after dinner. The incident had no further consequences except that the change of name was now reported in all the newspapers." But, in fact, there may have been further consequences of which Olden, writing in 1936, could not have been aware.
Consequences for the little town of Döllersheim, which was the scene of the dubious Schicklgruber/Hitler name change and which soon became the victim of a far more brutal assault with weapons worse than truncheons, an assault that nearly obliterated all traces of its existence.
Such at least is the theory first advanced in 1956 by Franz Jetzinger, the Austrian archivist and author of a widely respected study (Bullock and Fest cite it frequently) called Hitler's Youth, which was the product of an exhaustive search of parish-church baptismal records and other long-forgotten depositories of documents on Hitler's ancestry and youth.
In his discussion of the controversial assertion, in a pre-execution Nuremberg memoir by Hitler's one-time private attorney Hans Frank, that Frank had uncovered evidence to support the view that the mysterious stranger/paternal grandfather of Hitler was a Jew, Jetzinger cites "this curious fact which may be interpreted as bearing out Frank's story":
Not two months after Hitler invaded Austria, in May 1938, an order was issued to the Land Registries concerned to carry out a survey of Döllersheim (Alois Hitler's birthplace) and neighbourhood with a view to their suitability as a battle training area for the Wehrmacht.
In the following year the inhabitants of Döllersheim were forcibly evacuated and the village together with the surrounding countryside was blasted and withered by German artillery and infantry weapons. The birthplace of Hitler's father and the site of his grandmother's grave were alike rendered unrecognizable, and today this whole tract of what was once fertile and flourishing country is an arid desert sown with unexploded shells. But an area so closely associated with Hitler's family could not have been used for battle training without his knowledge and permission. Then why did he give it? Or did Hitler himself initiate the order for the destruction of Döllersheim out of insane hatred of his father and the desire to erase the "shame" of his Jewish blood?
While Jetzinger's account has been challenged, primarily by Werner Maser (who argues that it was the Russians who destroyed Döllersheim after 1945 to eliminate a possible future shrine for neo-Nazis), in either version the goal was the elimination of the problematic archival nexus of Hitler's origins-a sanitizing, cleansing operation designed to exterminate the rats' nest of ambiguities that had its origin there, to exterminate the possibility of hostile or empathetic explanation.
Döllersheim delenda est. Nor was it just Döllersheim. No-as we learned from the proprietors of the inn we stopped at-who became our guides to what I came to call the verfallen landscape of Hitler's past-the entire area around Döllersheim, including the little village of Strones where Maria Schicklgruber was born and the cemetery she was buried in, was blasted, leveled, or, to extend the Nazi-inflected metaphor of sanitation, cauterized.
We warmed up and finished our wursts at a table beneath the "Disco Abend" poster before approaching the gaggle of locals clustered around the fireplace to ask them what they knew of a place called Döllersheim. He'd heard of it, yes, said the proprietor wrapped in winter clothes and wearing his Tyrolean hat indoors against the drafts from the storm outside. He'd heard about it, but it was . . . complicated. A map was summoned up, a big folded map of Austria that, Waltraud later informed me, bore the markings of the Austrian Freedom Party; it was an election-year giveaway of the party of Jörg Haider, the charismatic former male model and führer of Austria's far right (some call it neo-Nazi) movement.
The proprietor traced his finger from our location at the inn north and west along the road we were on. "You pass the castle of Ottenstein," he said. "It's up on a hill to the left, then continue on across the river until," his finger reached a shaded region where, he said, all is "verfallen."
He began pointing to a dotted line around a shaded area. Next to the name of each tiny village and town within it, there appeared the word "verfallen." Strones verfallen, Spital verfallen, a half dozen or so towns verfallen-that is destroyed, ruined. Finally, in the midst of it all there was Döllersheim-verfallen.
"Ruined how?" Waltraud asked.
"Long ago" was all he said.
The snow was still pelting the countryside as we skidded back onto the road from the courtyard of the inn. The number of barns and habitations had thinned out, the piney woods had thickened. At last, we saw a small sign that read "Ottenstein," and up on a cliff loomed the snowy outlines of a Schloss, the castle of Ottenstein.
The family-romance genealogical speculations might be conceptual castles in the air, but here were the snowy turrets of the real castle in Maria Schicklgruber's life, the only castle the peasant serving girl was ever likely to see-unless, of course, one believes the story spread by the Austrian secret police that she'd gone to work in the Vienna palace of Baron Rothschild. But seeing the snowy desolation that settled as early as autumn upon Maria's native land, it would not be impossible to imagine an unmarried forty-two-year-old domestic serving woman vulnerable to an intrigue with the type of exotic or wealthy employer envisioned by the family romances.
Who was this woman, Maria Schicklgruber, who left such a maddeningly ambiguous legacy to Hitler and to history? It is easy to project too much retrospective mystery upon her due to the disproportionate importance of her grandson. What is more interesting is how the serving-girl seduction romances of the two other Hitler women to figure prominently in subsequent Hitler-explanation controversies-his mother, Klara, and his half-niece, Geli Raubal-seem to reflect, even recapitulate the sexual mystery Maria Schicklgruber left behind. What is it about the amorous master/ambivalent serving girl relationship that causes it to figure in three successive generations of Hitler women and the controversies surrounding them?
Consider Hitler's mother, Klara, often portrayed by chroniclers (taking their cue from her devoted son's description of her) as a simple, saintly, self-sacrificing servant of her husband and children. In fact, a closer look at her role reveals Klara-a serving girl in the Alois Hitler household during his first two marriages-was capable of participating in complicated, illicit, clandestine (and borderline incestuous) intrigues with the imperious head of the household. We know, for instance, that at sixteen Klara was willing to move into the cramped quarters of a married man (Alois) twenty years older than she, a man not so distantly related to her (she was his niece), under pretext of being his serving maid.
It was 1867, and Hitler's father was then living with his first wife, a relatively wealthy woman thirteen years his senior, who was ailing when he married her, most probably for her money. As John Toland describes it, Klara, an attractive teenager "with abundant dark hair . . . was installed with the Hitlers in an inn where Alois was already carrying on an affair with a kitchen maid, Franziska," who would become his second wife when his first finally expired. After his first wife died, developments in the Alois Hitler né Schicklgruber household began to take on the appearance of a maimed French farce. After a period of living conjugally but without benefit of clergy with the kitchen maid, while simultaneously enjoying the services of the even younger maid (and niece) Klara, he married the older one. Only to find wife number two "was only too aware of how tempting a pretty maid could be to the susceptible Alois," Toland says, and one of Franziska's first acts after the wedding "was to get rid of Klara."
But not for long. Wife number two developed tuberculosis. As soon as Franziska left to seek treatment elsewhere, "it was only logical for [Alois] to seek help from his attractive niece [Klara]." Even when the wife returned-soon to die-young Klara remained, "and this time," says Toland, "she became housemaid, nursemaid and mistress."
It was shortly after this that the incest problem arose, and the sordid comedy in the Hitler apartment became a matter of official concern to the papacy in the Vatican.
When wife number two died, Alois sought to legitimize his live-in liaison with his maid/mistress Klara, but there was a barrier: "bilateral affinity in the third degree touching the second" as Alois's petition to the local bishop (prepared with ecclesiastical assistance) described his complicated family relationship to Klara. (If we accept the official version of Hitler's descent, then Alois's father and Klara's granduncle were the same person: Johann Georg Hiedler.) The local bishop thought this "third degree affinity touching the second" too touchy to approve on his own authority and instead forwarded the petition to Rome with a plea for a papal dispensation. But even after the Vatican granted the dispensation, Klara continued to call her new husband what she called him when she was still his maid/mistress: "uncle."
"Uncle." That's exactly what Adolf Hitler's own housemaid/niece Geli Raubal called him when she moved into his apartment in 1929 and they began their intense, controversial (then and now), and ultimately fatal relationship, the third erotic serving-girl drama in the Hitler saga.
I'll return later to look more closely at the Geli Raubal tragedy, pausing here to note only those elements that make it such an uncanny recapitulation of the family romance of Maria Shicklgruber and the mysterious stranger. There was, in Geli's case, a suspected Jewish seducer, a (rumored) pregnancy, and a tormented affair with the master of the house in which she served. And with Geli, as with Maria, there is the abyss between two conflicting views of the essential nature of the serving maid in question: Was she an innocent, a blameless maiden, an "angel" (as many called Geli), or was she a scheming, intriguing seductress who used provocation and deception to advance herself?
Further evidence for how highly charged the serving maid-Jewish master fantasy was in Hitler's own mind can be found in its prominence as a pornographic motif in Julius Streicher's Der Stürmer, in Hitler's peculiar ecstasy over Streicher's coverage of the Hirsch case, a celebrated 1920s trial of a Jewish master for the rape of his Aryan serving girl. And in Hitler's denunciation of Matthias Erzberger, one of the "November Criminals" (the men who signed the "stab in the back" November 1918 armistice), as "the bastard son of a Jew and a serving girl."
And then, as Robert Waite has pointed out, there is the serving-girl codicil which Hitler insisted on including in the 1935 Nuremberg racial laws, a codicil that not only specifically outlawed intercourse between Jews and Aryans but also explicitly forbade Jews even to employ Aryan women under the age of forty-five in their homes. It is a bizarre legislative provision, in that it seems to have a pornographic fantasy embedded within it. It's a subversively ambiguous fantasy at that: While it seems to say that Jews could not be trusted with nubile Aryan women in their employ, the fact that the prohibition extended not just to the act of miscegenation but to the possibility of a Jewish master and Aryan maidservant being in each other's presence carries an implicit hint that the Aryan maids themselves might not be trusted. This deeply embedded distrust, or at least deeply divided view of the serving girl and her relationship to the shadowy pater incertus who may be her master, is at the heart of the enigma of Maria Schicklgruber and the fantasies projected upon the blank line on the baptismal certificate she filed in Döllersheim.
No explicit eyewitness or documentary evidence has survived to support this dark view of Maria. The rumored paternity correspondence that would document the story of a liaison between Maria and a wealthy Jew she served, the "Jew from Graz" cited by Hitler's personal attorney Hans Frank in his Nuremberg memoir, has never surfaced. There is no testimony from Maria's contemporaries to indict her, to indicate she was anything other than a simple good-hearted peasant woman, even a courageous single mother who defied poverty and advancing age to bear a child without benefit of clergy or paternal support at an age, forty-two, when other peasant women might have resigned themselves to declining years of childless drudgery.
And yet there is testimony, reported testimony, from a descendent. A story about Maria, a sordid story of low, mean sexual intrigue, fraud, and blackmail that makes her out to be a cunning and deceitful anti-Semitic extortionist. It's a story we might otherwise ignore were it not for its source-a man specifically assigned by Adolf Hitler to investigate the circumstances of Maria's pregnancy, an attorney who claimed he got his seamy, disreputable portrait of Maria from a member of her own family. To be more precise: from Adolf Hitler himself.
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